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4. Mode of their appointment

Antiquities of the Christian Church
XXII. Sacred Seasons of the Puritans

4. Mode of their appointment

In Plymouth colony this was done by the civil authority. . The practice there was embodied in a law of 1637 – "that it be in the power of the governor and assistants to command solemn daies of humiliation by fasting, and also for thanksgiving as occasion shall be offered." When deputies became a part of the General Court, they sometimes acted with the other branch of government in the designation of these seasons. Such times were also proposed and observed by the churches, either singly or collectively, as circumstances seemed to indicate. They were so continued by church and state in Plymouth colony till the arrival of the second charter of Massachusetts in 1692, when the former was incorporated with the latter colony.

The mode of Plymouth, as just described, did not materially differ from that of Massachusetts. Here, with respect to a fast at the choice of ministers for the Salem church in 1629, Mr. Gott informs us, that it was ordered by governor Endicott. While the General Court was solely composed of magistrates till 1634, the governor, as their head and through their advice, did exercise like power. Subsequent to this, until the arrival of the second charter in 1692, he did not entirely lay aside such a practice. Besides, the council in their own name, even while there were chief magistrates, issued proclamations. The first printed document of this class, in the Massachusetts archives, is of the following tenor. "At a Council held at Boston September 8th, 1670. The council taking into their serious consideration the low estate of the churches of God throughout the world, and the increase of sin and evil amongst ourselves, God's hand following us for the same. Do, therefore, appoint the two and twentieth of this instant September, to be a day of public humiliation throughout this jurisdiction, and do commend the same to the several churches, elders, ministers and people, solemnly to keep it accordingly; hereby prohibiting all servile work on that day.
By the Council,
Edward Rawson, Secret."

The term Council, as used here and elsewhere, included the name of the governor. In the same collection is a manuscript proclamation for thanksgiving in 1671, and similar papers for two fasts of 1675 and 1677, issued by such a body. The first printed proclamation for a thanksgiving to be found in the like depository, is of April 23, 1691, and is headed, "By the Governor and Council." But, however, fasts and thanksgivings were appointed in Massachusetts singly by the council, and also, by the governor through their advice, down to the year last named; still days of this description were more frequently ordered in the name of the General Court. As well known there was a suspension of this custom on the part of our colonial authorities in New England, under the presidency of Sir Edmund Andros, from 1686 to 1689. He, being zealous to promote the observances of the national church, had no disposition to order those of the Puritans. While the rulers, chosen by the people of Massachusetts were in power, they allowed the church to keep as many fasts and thanksgivings as they chose. Accordingly we find among their laws one of the succeeding tenor, passed in 1641. "Every church of Christ hath freedom to celebrate dayes of fasting and prayer and of thanksgiving, according to the word of God." This was a confirmation of previous custom which, as before, has ever since remained in New England.

With respect to this subject, as in the hands of the legislature, they continued some variation in the proclamations under the second charter. These documents were issued in the name of governor, council and representatives, as in 1693; of his Excellency and council, as in 1700; and of governor by advice of council, as in 1733. The last mode of phraseology was that, which was generally adopted after 1700, and so continued till the adoption of the constitution in 1780. But whatever variation of this kind existed, the representatives always claimed the right of having a concern in the appointment of fasts and thanksgivings. So inclined, they did not find their whole course smooth in relation to these seasons.

In 1696 they were severely reproved by the council for interference with them about the particular date, when such an occasion should be kept. This difference did not call in question the propriety of the house to request the governor that he would designate seasons of this sort by consent of the council. In 1721, the representatives moved for a joint committee of this body and of themselves, to prepare a proclamation for a fast. The council declined such a proposition, because they deemed it an anticipation of the governor's right. But "he willing to conform to the house so far as would consist with maintaining his right of issuing proclamations, mentioned in the proclamation which he soon after published, that the appointment was by advice of council and upon motion from the house of Representatives. But the house refused to meet him, and declared they had never made any such motion, and ordered that no members of the house should carry any proclamations to their towns for the present. The day was, however, observed as usual, except that one of the representatives (William Clark) of Boston would not attend public worship, but opened his warehouse as upon other days." The difficulty here described, arose from the purpose of the house to unite with the council to prepare such a document independently of the governor, though to be published in his name.

The author, whose language on this topic has been just quoted, relates that, as stated by the board, the attempt of the representatives to participate in the composition of the order in question, was unprecedented. But there is a mistake on this point. For, it had been no uncommon thing for the house to draw up proclamations for fasts and thanksgivings and forward them to the council and governor for their approbation. Nor were these papers rejected as being improper. The chief magistrate, Samuel Shute, with whom the preceding difficulty took place, in his protest against Massachusetts before parliament in 1723, which well nigh caused the nullification of our charter, charged the house with undue interference in the appointments of fasts and thanksgivings. On this subject, Doctor Douglass stated in 1749, that such days "ever since governor Shute's complaints, have been appointed by the governor and council, at the desire of the house of represeniatives." The practice, here mentioned, lasted till 1779. The next year it was discontinued. From this time, when the senate was formed, and, in most respects, assumed the previous duties of the council, fasts and thanksgivings have been recommended by the chief magistrate with advice of council.

As the genius of ecclesiastical and political usages of Massachusetts pervaded those of New Haven and Connecticut, the mode of designating fasts and thanksgivings in the two latter colonies, was essentially the same as that in the former. Relative to more modern practice of Connecticut, we have the ensuing account. "The present mode is by the governor alone. This has been the practice since May, 1833. Before that time, the governor designated the day; but previous to the adoption of the constitution in 1818, which abolished the October session of the general assembly, the governor submitted his proclamation to the two houses of that body, and had their approbation. Between 1818 and 1833, the practice was the same, as it is now from the necessity of the case, because the general assembly was not in session at or near the time of issuing the proclamation." 

Concerning the appointment of fasts and thanksgivings in Rhode Island, we have the subsequent passage. These days "were, in the earlier times of the state, occasionally recommended by the legislature. In 1789 commenced the annual thanksgiving in this slate. The subject was introduced into the General Assembly by the late Judge Bicknell, then a representative from the town of Barrington, in pursuance of instructions from his constituents. Since then, a day has been set apart every year for that purpose, except only in 1801. Resolutions are generally introduced into the legislature at their session in October, recommending 'to the good people' of the state, to observe a certain day, as a day of public thanksgiving and praise, and requesting the governor to issue his 'proclamation of the resolutions so passed. Public fasts have never been recommended by our legislature at any stated seasons. I believe fasts and thanksgivings are and have been long held by advice of clerical bodies and individual churches." 

In relation to New Hampshire, we present the following: "Our records as far back as 1698, show the appointment of fasts and thanksgivings by the governor with advice of his council." No doubt the representatives claimed and exercised the privilege of proposing such seasons to the chief magistrate. "I find from 1776, that a committee of the assembly was generally appointed to prepare a form for a proclamation, which would be adopted by the assembly and concurred in by the council, and receive the signature of the governor, then called president." Since New Hampshire adopted their constitution in 1792, their fasts and thanksgivings have been appointed as in Massachusetts.

Concerning the mode under consideration, as practised in Vermont, we have the subsequent information. "Previous to the adoption of any constitution, and while the powers of government were exercised by a council of safety, they appointed a day of thanksgiving by resolution. After the first constitution, the general assembly in March 1778, appointed a day of fasting and adopted a form of proclamation, and in October of the same year, they appointed a day of thanksgiving, and requested the governor to issue his proclamation therefor. There have been no resolutions of the general assembly in relation to fasts since 1778, but they have been appointed by the executive; the proclamation has been issued by the governor, by and with the advice of the council. Resolutions for the appointment of days of thanksgiving, are annually passed by the legislature, and, for nearly fifty years, the form has been to request the governor to appoint a day of thanksgiving, fixing the day." 

Winslow's Relation in Mass. Hist. Collections, 1st Ser. Vol. VIII. p. 275.

MS. Plymouth Colony Records.v

Letter from Mr. Charles Gott to governor Bradford

Massachusetts Archives. Ecclesiastical, Vol. I. p. 17.

Mass. Archives. Ecclesiastical, Vol. 11. p. 57.

Massachusetts laws revised in 1649, and printed at Cambridge, 1660, p. 25,

Hutchinson's Hist. Mass. 3d ed. Vol. 11. p. 223.

Douglass' History of America, Vol. I. p. 495.

Letter from Hon. Thomas Day.

Letter from Hon. William Staples.

Letter from Josiah Stevens, Jr. Esq. Secretary of State.

Letter from Hon. Charles K. Williams.


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